Wallace Shawn

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Always loved the Wallace Shawn plays Aunt Dan and Lemon and Marie and Bruce, but I wasn’t a huge fan of The Designated Mourner when it was first performed in 1998. I must say, it’s aged rather well, what with a fascist game-show host in the White House and every form of dysfunction passing for entertainment on television. What’s not often said about this supposedly golden age of TV is that it has no shortage of doltish, cruel content, people acting out the damage deep inside them for the amusement of others. Isn’t it odd that a seemingly inordinate amount of these “performers” die at a young age and nobody seems surprised? The parade of dysfunction and viciousness that Howard Stern rode to wealth and fame was co-opted by mainstream outlets just as the shock jock was largely shedding his worst impulses thanks to years of intensive therapy. 

Donald Trump, a veteran of Stern and Reality TV, didn’t invent anything new–he just took the sadistic show on the road, on the trail. What was stated repeatedly during the election season was that Trump was so much more entertaining than his competitors. He filled a void within the nation, though he did it with hate and trash.

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In a New York Review of Books piece published at the time of Mourner, Fintan O’Toole best described Shawn’s odd dual existence as mainstream comic curmudgeon and apocalyptic playwright: “The other Wallace Shawn, the playwright, is a dark figure glowering on the margins of American consumer culture, muttering about blood and sex and torture. The two aspects of his public persona seem absurdly incompatible, almost as if Samuel Beckett had made regular guest appearances on The Brady Bunch or The Lone Ranger.”

That essay came up during Adam Shatz’s London Review of Books podcast interview with Shawn. An excerpt:

Question:

Fintan O’Toole, in an essay that I thought was very perceptive about your work in the New York Review, wrote that in your plays darkness is inextricable from the popular entertainment – that wrapped up in the smooth consolations of prime time is a core of utter cruelty. I’m wondering, what do you think explains this relationship between entertainment and cruelty?

Wallace Shawn:

Well, cruelty is often expressed in entertainment …

Question:

Spectacle.

Wallace Shawn:

… obviously, the most famous being the Romans, who openly had people being killed in front of an audience.

Question:

Or lynching in the States, as well.

Wallace Shawn:

Yes. And, of course, public executions, which are still common in many countries. I mean, human beings have, one might say, in infinite well of sadism somewhere inside them, and our, you know, challenge is to try to prevent that from having everyone annihilate everyone else. But obviously there’s a tremendous amount of vicarious killing, beating and insulting that forms a large part of film and television entertainment. I mean, you know, you have to … you have to work hard to find popular pieces of entertainment – I mean, of television or films – that don’t contain those elements. But it’s … you know, when I was, I suppose … maybe nine or so, and my brother was five, we had a little Super 8 movie camera, and we made little films – and we were not very rough boys, to put it mildly, but we had guns and fist-fights, and our father tried to encourage us to make up a story that had no violence in it, and I think he gave us a head-start, you know, some suggestions on how to go about it.

Question:

This isn’t a violent story, but you do talk, in one of your essays, in a very affecting scene where you’re riding in a cab with your dad – I think you’re about ten years old – and you see some awkward, miserable-looking kid, and you start laughing at him, and your father breaks down in tears.

Wallace Shawn:

Well, he was a sensitive guy. And I don’t know if there’s any ten-year-old who is very sensitive – maybe there are. He was … yeah, it was a funny-looking, overweight kid who would have been, you know, bullied in school, and I didn’t know him, but I was indirectly bullying him just by laughing at his appearance. And, you know, that was a powerful lesson from my father, which, you know, one has to … I have to re-learn it all the time – certainly, as a short actor, I’m offered … well, I’m no longer offered many parts, because I’m declining in my popularity, but I … I have been, over the years, offered an enormous number of parts where my character, the short guy, is being bullied, and it’s supposed to be funny – and then, at a certain point, I sort of realised that was what it was, and started turning those down – along with the parts with the bullied short guy realises that he, too, can be a bully.

Question:

And turns his aggression against the other?

Wallace Shawn:

Exactly – maybe with a gun, or maybe through some clever tactic such as kicking him in the testicles, whatever.

Question:

One of the things that makes your work striking and disturbing, your plays, is that you often describe the dark allure and the pleasure that people take in cruelty, and I think, for that reason, the plays are not accusatory or pious, because you’re writing about the seductions of amorality – and the seduction of amorality is a big theme, certainly, in The Designated Mourner. Do you think that this pleasure in cruelty and aggression is a big part of Trump’s appeal? You spoke about him earlier as ‘the boot’.

Wallace Shawn:

Well, I think he certainly has concluded that that is the side of him that has made him president. I personally found his speech the other day to the policemen at the Police Academy, where he said, Don’t be too nice, one of the more horrifying moments in his presidency. I think that the pleasure that people take in cruelty, or what you would call sadism, is a very under-discussed motive for a tremendous amount of what goes on in the world – not just in our country. I mean, people take at face value the verbal explanation for why someone is being beaten up or shot, or hundreds of people being beaten up or shot, or people are being are being tortured. There are a million explanations, as there have been for every war that’s ever been fought, going back to the beginning of humanity. These … you know, there are different explanations – the explanation that is ignored is the one that isn’t put into words: the human love of cruelty, the desire to kill, the desire to torment other humans – that’s not included. I mean, the Americans say, We are fighting for freedom and democracy, and the Isis people say, We’re fighting for God, and … I mean, there have been a million explanations. But there is … an irrational desire to hurt or kill other people that is, for reasons we don’t fully understand, sometimes quiet inside humans and sometimes comes to the fore.•

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Life is cheap today in America, and cheap is often expensive.

At some point during the last few decades, we ceased being called “citizens” and began to be referred to as “consumers.” The bitterly funny joke is that consumer protections were being stripped away all the while.

Price became everything. The lower the sticker number, the better, we were told. Facebook and Google and Internet giants are “free” to use. Except that the costs are hidden, if barely, as we trade our privacy for some “friends.” Uber and Lyft are usually less expensive because the drivers aren’t given benefits or basic protections. Cheap goods from Walmart of Amazon mean the expenses have been passed on to others. More and more, we’re all others now.

United bloodying a passenger who refused to be removed from a flight resonated with so many because it doesn’t feel like an outrageous outlier but a commentary on where we are now–and where we may be heading. 

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There’s a scene in Wallace Shawn’s latest play, Evening at the Talk House, about a time much like own in which America has descended into totalitarianism, and intellect and decency have become enemies of the nation. In an early scene, a character has been given a “short battering” by friends, a not uncommon occurrence in the new abnormal, because he was getting close to “crossing a line.”

Robert:

I mean, really, Dick, this is amazing, how are you?

Dick:

I’m absolutely fine. Very very well. (A slight pause) What? Oh–this? (Pointing to his face) Well! No–I– (Somewhat more quietly and confidentially) No, don’t worry about that! I was beaten, rather recently, by some friends, but you see, I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end. Really, it was great. No–I loved it! In fact, you should try it some time, Robert. It’s now what you think. It was quite fun, I’m serious.

Robert:

My God, what happened?

Dick:

Well, it was a short battering. You know. Informal. A small group of my friends–we met, you know, and they just said, Dick, you see, you’re getting a bit close to being “grr– grr— grr–” (He covers his mouth and makes a weird animal sound, miming odd animal-like behavior) so we have to “ergh” (Miming some punches) –and we have to “ergh” (More mimed blows) –and maybe a bit of “ergh” … (Mimed kicks)

Robert:

You mean they–?–

Dick:

They were right, obviously. I was getting to a point where I was about to cross a line, and this was sort of a case of, “Stop! Go back a few steps!” You know, that sort of thing.

Robert:

Crossing a line? But, Dick–my God, you were–you were always such a quiet, well-behaved little bastard when I knew you, Dick.

Dick:

I still am! (He laughs loudly) But that’s what I find myself saying every day. I haven’t changed. Everything else has changed Do you know what I mean?•

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From Matt Levine at Bloomberg View:

 

Yesterday United Airlines provided a nice demonstration of the proposition that capitalism is built on a foundation of violence, when it summoned agents of the state to beat up a customer who insisted that United provide the service he had paid for. “Come and see the violence inherent in the system,” he might have yelled, had the police not knocked him out. (“He fell,” commented the police.)

United then went on to demonstrate that if you are a major airline in 2017, you don’t have to be very good at public relations, putting out a series of blasé statements whose main message was “whatever, we are an airline, you will come crawling back.” It was interesting to see people on Twitter talk about boycotting United over this incident, as though that was a possible course of action. Consider the revealed preferences: The man at the center of the incident, who was violently attacked for sitting in the seat that he had paid for, tried to run back onto the plane. He’s not boycotting United! He just wanted to get home.

We talk a lot around here about the theory that increasingly concentrated cross-ownership of the airline industry by institutional investors has reduced competition among airlines, and I suppose you could read this incident as proof that United is so insulated from competitive pressures that it can afford to beat up its customers without losing any market share. But really this story seems more like the result of competition — but competition solely on price, not on service. If airlines compete solely on price, some passengers will get beaten up. “Investors seem impressed by the sadistic commitment to cost control,” comments Matt Klein“By auctioning off overbooked seats, economist James Heins estimates that $100 billion has been saved by the airline industry and its customers in the 30-plus years since the practice was introduced.” Ryanair would introduce Beating Class if it could save money.

Anyway blah blah blah United should have run a fair auction and only removed people voluntarily at agreed-on rates of compensation, says the Economist, but of course from United’s perspective that’s not true. Why pay more to rescind a passenger’s ticket, when you could just call in the cops?•

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When I post this quote from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, I don’t know if I should attribute it to Andre Gregory or “Andre Gregory.” Either way, the character’s fear seems more pressing now, though for some, it’s the dream. The passage:

I think it’s quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished, and that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, that from now on there will simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing, and there’ll be nobody left almost to remind them that there once was a species called a human being, with feelings and thoughts, and that history and memory are right now being erased and soon nobody will really remember that life existed on the planet.•

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Terrorists dress the part now, aided by Hollywood editing techniques which help them satisfy expectations. And the rest of us also try to project an image virtually of who we want to be, if one not so horrifying. It’s neither quite real nor fake, just a sort of purgatory. It’s a variation of who we actually are–a vulgarization.

Here’s the transcription of a scene from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss how performance had become introduced in a significant way into quotidian life, and that was long before Facebook gave the word “friends” scare quotes and prior to Reality TV, online identities and selfies:

Andre Gregory:

That was one of the reasons why Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well, that performing in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way, obscene. Isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? You see a terrorist on television and he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, single people or artists kind of live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father or single person or an artist should look and behave. They all act like that know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment, and they all seem totally self-confident. But privately people are very mixed up about themselves. They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives. They’re reading all these self-help books.

Wallace Shawn:

God, I mean those books are so touching because they show how desperately curious we all are to know how all the others of us are really getting on in life, even though by performing all these roles in life we’re just hiding the reality of ourselves from everybody else. I mean, we live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends. I mean, I mean, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things, but we just don’t dare to ask each other. 

Andre Gregory:

No, it would be like asking your friend to drop his role.

Wallace Shawn:

I mean, we just put no value at all on perceiving reality. On the contrary, this incredible emphasis we now put on our careers automatically makes perceiving reality a very low priority, because if your life is organized around trying to be successful in a career, well, it just doesn’t matter what you perceive or what you experience. You can really sort of shut your mind off for years ahead in a way. You can turn on the automatic pilot.•

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Wallace Shawn talking to the Paris Review last year about My Dinner with Andre, one of my obsessions:

Paris Review:

How did My Dinner with André get set up, as they say?

Wallace Shawn:

After André directed Our Late Night, he decided to get out of theater. Then, three years later, he came back and said, Let’s do something else. And I thought, Let’s not do a play, let’s do a television film of some kind—talking heads, you and me. You’ll be you—you’ll tell about all these amazing things that you did while you were not working in the theater—and I will be sort of the way I really am, somewhat skeptical, and that will be funny. So we talked on tape, audio tape, for many months, and I wrote a script that was based on the transcriptions of those tapes. And after much discussion of all the world’s great directors, André and I decided to send the script to Louis Malle. Amazingly, we reached him quite quickly, through Diana Michener, a mutual friend, and our script must have come at exactly the right moment in his schedule, and apparently it came at the right moment in his life as well, because it rang some bell with him. He read the script almost immediately and then called André and said, Let’s do it. 

Paris Review:

Why Malle?

Wallace Shawn:

Louis Malle was a superb storyteller, and we felt he’d bring out the story, the plot of the script, because it has a plot, even though it seems we’re just idly talking. Malle also had a great sense of humor. And he had a fearless what-the-hell attitude. Many directors would have been terrified that the audience would become bored, and they would have been tempted to illustrate the various stories with flashbacks or at least to cut away to other events in the restaurant. Louis wasn’t frightened of the audience and didn’t do those things.

Paris Review:

How long was the shoot?

Wallace Shawn:

Three weeks. In the first week, though, Louis Malle simply tested out various complicated camera moves. By the end of the week, he’d decided he didn’t want to do any of them. So basically we had ten days, and we went methodically from one angle to the next, with one camera, and we shot ten feet of film for every foot we used, as in any normal film.”

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From 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, a debate about technology, the comfort and numbness it brings, and how it subtly changes who we are:

Wally:

Last summer Debbie and I were given an electric blanket. I can tell you it is just such a marvelous advance over our old way of life. And it’s just great. But it is quite different from not having an electric blanket. And I sometimes sort of wonder, What is it doing to me? And I mean, I sort of feel that I’m not sleeping quite in the same way.

Andre:

No, you wouldn’t be.

Wally: 

And I mean, uh…my dreams are sort of different. And I feel a little bit different when I get up in the morning.

Andre: 

I wouldn’t put an electric blanket on for anything. First, I might be worried that I’d get electrocuted. No, I don’t trust technology. But I mean the main thing Wally is that I think that that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way.

Wally: 

You mean…

Andre: 

I mean if you don’t have that electric blanket, and you’re apartment is cold, and you need to put on another blanket or go into the closet and pile up coats on top of the blanket you have, well then you know it’s cold, and that sets up a link of things. You have compassion for the person–well, is the person next to you cold? Are there other people in the world cold? What a cold night! I like the cold, my god, I never realized. I don’t want a blanket. It’s fun being cold. I can snuggle up against you even more because it’s cold–all sorts of things occur to you. Turn on that electric blanket and it’s like taking a tranquilizer, it’s like being lobotomized by watching television. I think you enter the dream world again. What does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold don’t in any way effect us? I mean, we’re animals, after all. I mean, what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we’re living in a fantasy world of our own making.”•

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A passage from My Dinner with Andre, about reality, that elusive thing, which has only grown fuzzier since the film’s release in 1981. And despite history being recorded with ever greater devotion, it still is increasingly forgotten.

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